WASHINGTON – A key U.S. Senate panel has voted in favor of lifting Cold War-era trade restrictions on Russia, while also backing sanctions aimed at punishing Russian human rights violators.
In a 24-0 vote, lawmakers in the Senate Committee on Finance approved a bill that would exempt Moscow from the 1974 Jackson-Vanik Amendment, which used trade barriers to press for the free emigration of Jews from the Soviet Union.
Although the law's provisions have been waived by every U.S. president since 1994, it has stayed on the books, functioning as a symbol of Washington's opposition to Russia's human rights violations.
Should the full Congress follow suit, Russia would be granted permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) with the United States. If Washington does not lift its restrictions, it will not benefit from reduced tariffs afforded by Russia's entry into the World Trade Organization this August.
Committee Chairman Max Baucus (Democrat-Montana) has pushed for normalized trade, claiming that doing so would double U.S. exports to Russia -- currently worth around $9 billion annually -- in 5 years.
But the influential senator has also registered the pulse of the Congress, where lawmakers have increasingly rallied around the Sergei Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act as a needed trade-off.
"Jackson-Vanik served its purpose 20 years ago by ensuring that Jews and others could freely emigrate from Russia, but it is now out of date," said Baucus. "By enacting PNTR together with the Magnitsky bill, we're replacing Jackson-Vanik with legislation that addresses the corruption and accountability issues that Russia confronts today."
The Magnitsky bill calls for visa bans and asset freezes for officials involved in gross human rights violations anywhere in the world, but was crafted specifically in response to Russian lawyer Sergei Magnitsky's 2009 death.
Magnitsky was targeted after accusing top Russian officials in a scheme to defraud the government. He died in 2009 after more than a year in pre-trial detention, during which he was repeatedly denied medical care and allegedly beaten.
The Russian government has charged just one low-level official in the case, which has become an international symbol of Moscow's human rights and rule-of-law failings.
At the committee hearing, Senator Jon Kyl (Republican-Arizona) said the U.S. measure could help spur reform within Russia.
"It is critical that we include this legislation -- the Magnitsky bill -- in the legislation we're considering today," he said. "We either, in effect, side with corrupt Russian bureaucrats who are standing in the way of the progress of the Russian people or help [Russia] pursue the kind of rule of law that we know will not only help them, but will also help those who wish to trade with them."
Russia has long sought Jackson-Vanik exemption, but has railed at the Magnitsky bill, saying its passage would harm bilateral relations.
"The last thing we want is for the anti-Soviet Jackson-Vanik amendment to be replaced with anti-Russian legislation," Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov was quoted as saying by Interfax.
The Obama administration has supported normalized trade with Russia, but has opposed the Magnitsky sanctions.
Both the administration and several key lawmakers in the House of Representatives favor de-linking the two, casting doubt on whether the measures will become law -- especially in the waning days before Congress' summer recess.
Finance Committee members also voted to exempt Moldova from Jackson-Vanik trade restrictions -- a move described by Baucus as "long overdue."
He later told RFE/RL that lifting restrictions on Moldova, a by far less contentious move than in Russia's case, had been delayed simply because "other issues were more important."
In an e-mail, Igor Munteanu, Moldova's Ambassador to the United States, said the Senate vote was "of great importance" for Europe's poorest country.